The city of Austin is preparing to pay Harry Whittington $14.1 million for a downtown block he once owned that has been the center of a 14-year condemnation battle.
The payment, which the City Council is scheduled to consider Thursday, could end the protracted legal fight waged by Whittington, an 86-year-old Austin lawyer whom former Vice President Dick Cheney famously shot and wounded during a 2006 hunting trip.
The city finally won the merits of the case last fall in the Texas Supreme Court, but it still must pay Whittington for the land. City Manager Marc Ott said then that the city would pay the value that a jury determined in 2007: $10.5 million.
The rest, $3.6 million, is interest, attorneys at the city said.
Whittington said Friday that a judge still has to decide how much the city owes him. A decision is expected soon, city attorneys said. The city or Whittington could appeal the figure — so the long-running case could continue.
Whittington said $14.1 million isn’t enough, because it’s derived from old estimates and doesn’t reflect the value his family could have reaped from the land during the current downtown development boom.
“That ($14.1 million) doesn’t take into account what we could’ve done with the block over the past 12 years, if we had been able to develop it and have the income from the development,” Whittington told the American-Statesman. “Just the raw land would probably be worth more than $14.1 million today.”
Whittington and his family had owned the block, bounded by Red River, Sabine, East Fourth and East Fifth streets, and planned to eventually develop it, possibly into shops, lofts or a hotel.
But in the late 1990s, city officials sought to condemn the land, saying they needed to build a 700-space garage for conventiongoers and Sixth Street revelers as well as a chiller to cool the nearby Austin Convention Center and other downtown buildings.
Whittington fought back, saying parking was available at another city garage and that developers of a nearby hotel had backed out of a plan to build parking there.
Court rulings freed the city to build the garage and chiller. But the legal battle dragged on, prolonged by appeals from Whittington and the city. A jury ruled in 2007 that the city had illegally condemned the block, and a court of appeals upheld that verdict.
But the state Supreme Court ruled last fall that the city did not act fraudulently or in bad faith when it took over the block — confirming that the city correctly condemned and owns the land.
The city had set aside $7.8 million to pay Whittington for the block after a prior ruling in the case, city documents say. That money came from the city’s convention center department issuing $5.3 million in debt and getting a $2.5 million loan from Austin Energy, the documents say.
The convention center will now add an additional $6.3 million from its budget to get to the total of $14.1 million, city documents say.
City attorneys didn’t have a tally Friday of how much Austin has spent litigating the case. In 2005, city officials said the city had spent $237,000.
1999: The city asks Harry Whittington about selling a downtown block his family owns to build a parking garage and cooling plant. Whittington refuses. A condemnation lawsuit ensues.
2000: A condemnation board votes to give Whittington $3.66 million. But a process server’s mistake nullifies the condemnation case.
2002: A new condemnation board says the city must pay Whittington $7.6 million. He appeals. A county court-at-law judge rules that a parking garage is a public use for which the city can condemn the block.
2003: A Travis County jury decides the block is worth $7.7 million. Whittington appeals the court-at-law ruling and again sues the city, arguing that officials failed to condemn an alley on the block.
2005: Newly built parking garage opens.
2007: A jury rules that the city illegally condemned the block for economic development purposes rather than public use. The jury values the land at $10.5 million.
2010: An appeals court agrees with the jury.
2012: Texas Supreme Court rules that the city didn’t act fraudulently when it condemned the block. This frees the city to pay Whittington for the land.
This week: City prepares to pay Whittington $14.1 million for the block, as it awaits a judge’s decision on how much it owes.